woods used in the construction of musical
instruments are called tone woods. The
guitar's value and sonic qualities are strongly
influenced by the manufacturer's choice of tone
The soundboard is the most vital component
because it vibrates to create the guitar's sonic
personality. Soundboards in better guitars are
made from solid spruce or cedar,
soft woods that vibrate easily. As a solid wood
soundboard is played over months, even years, it
grows in beauty of tone and volume, i.e., it
Hirade TH-8SS | Classical guitar with spruce
Veneer or ply soundboards are less
resonate than solid wood and don't break in.
However, veneer is considerably stronger than
solid wood and thus makes a good choice for
children and rough and tumble tours. Moreover, a quality
veneer top will sound better than a poorly made
solid top. Nevertheless, design and construction
quality being equal, solid wood sounds better
Cedar Top | Takamine C132S | Cedar
has straight grain and brown
to amber color.
Spruce Top | Takamine TC135SC | Spruce
has straight grain and a light yellow
to amber color.
back and sides, constructed of hardwood,
provide structural support for the soundboard
and neck. They also form a resonating chamber;
that is, they amplify the sounds from the
strings and soundboard. Indian Rosewood is
traditionally used for back and sides but varieties of Brazilian Rosewood may be found on ultra expensive models and custom designs. Rosewoods are preferred by many players because of their strength (high density), beauty and tendency towards a darker tone.
hardwoods such as nato, mahogany, walnut, koa and maple are
excellent and are often less expensive than
rosewood. These hardwoods are common on steel-string guitars whereas classical designs are predominately rosewood.
Hardwood veneers are frequently used in the back
and sides of guitars costing under $1000.
Hardwood veneers have 90% of the musical
properties of solid hardwood but are stronger,
less prone to cracking and less expensive. Nevertheless, if you can afford it,
a well designed and constructed solid wood
guitar offers the ultimate tone.
Takamine G124 | Nato Back & Sides
Takamine EG128SC | Indian Rosewood Back & Sides
Hirade H25 | Brazilian Rosewood Back & Sides
are primarily constructed of mahogany, but other
hardwoods such as maple or nato may be used.
Fingerboards take a beating and thus are made
from dense hardwoods such as ebony or
rosewood. Ebony is preferred due to its
durability and stiffness but is normally found
in guitars costing over $1000, e.g., Hirade H5 and Alhambra 5P.
Rosewood fingerboards are the norm in mid-priced
instruments, e.g., Takamine G128S and C132S, but are excellent albeit a level below ebony in terms of durability. Nato, veneer
or soft woods are used in fingerboards of budget
Hirade TH8SS | Ebony fingerboard
Takamine C132S | Rosewood fingerboard
choice of wood is not just about beauty or durability. Each type of wood has a unique sonic signature. Cedar
soundboards take six months to a year to break in and
sound relatively dark and robust. Moreover, they
are more forgiving of sloppy right-hand
technique than spruce. In contrast, spruce soundboards take
several years to break in and offer more clarity
than cedar, but less warmth. Is one better than the other? Nope. It's all about choosing the soundboard that fits your technique and taste.
Spruce Tone | In this video clip, I play a Douglas Ching classical guitar with spruce soundboard and Brazilian rosewood back and sides. Notice the bright clarity and transparency of the tone?
Cedar Tone | The Frary Guitar Duo performs with cedar soundboard guitars: Douglas Ching (cedar & koa) and Jose Ramirez (cedar & Brazilian rosewood) classical guitars. Notice how dark, blended and romantic the tones are compared to spruce?
Of course, accomplished players can adjust their technique to sound good on both spruce and cedar soundboards. I love both woods equally but use them for different purposes. For Spanish and romantic music, I reach for my cedar top guitars. For ensemble and Baroque music, I grab a spruce top instrument.
density and character of the hardwood used in the back and
sides also influences timbre (tone color), although to a lessor extent than the soundboard. Dense hardwoods,
e.g., Brazilian Rosewood, produce the darkest timbre.
Softer hardwoods, e.g., maple, koa, walnut or
mahogany, have a brighter timbre.
combination of tone woods also influences
timbre. Spruce and cedar sound boards are
traditionally coupled with rosewood back and
sides, yielding a balanced timbre. A spruce
soundboard and soft hardwood back and
sides—e.g., maple or mahogany--yields the
brightest voice. A cedar top and soft hardwood
back and sides—e.g., koa or walnut—yields a
full-bodied voice with a touch of
A Man Playing a Guitar (c. 1830) | George Chinnery, 1774–1852 | Yale Center for British Art